‘We’ are often the subject of climate change pieces. ‘We’ need to do this, ‘we’ should do that, what do ‘we’ do? The royal ‘we’ has unfortunately been dethroned long ago. ‘We’ do not exist in any functional sense and ‘we’ (as in humans) are not even the relevant species to what we vainly call ‘man-made’ climate change. From an alien eye — the most qualified to judge — is it?
‘We’ don’t drink oil and the CO₂ ain’t coming out our mouths. That oil goes into machines and comes out of their butts. From an objective perspective, this ain’t the age of man, it’s the age of machines. Sure our reproduction was nicely mixed up with capitalist reproduction for a while, but now it’s killing us and our relatives in droves. The main actor in this Holocene (“whole new”) doesn’t seem to be us as much as our artifacts. They have come alive to the detriment of everything natural.
The truth is that AI isn’t something in the future. AI (as in intelligent, artificial life) has been ruling us since colonial days, back when they ravaged the Earth with renewable power. Their name (which I’m making up) is Capital corporations. Species corporations, genus Capital. That’s the relevant species to climate change. As Creedence Clearwater Revival sang, don’t look now, it ain’t you or me.
The Anthropogenic Mass
Members of a species are notoriously biased towards themselves (re: cats), so let’s take a different perspective. Imagine that we’re aliens looking down on Earth, with no great preconceptions about what is or isn’t a species, who is or isn’t in charge. What would they see?
Ignore the biased labelling on this chart. This is only ‘anthropogenic mass’ in the sense of being our funeral. What we’re really witnessing is a speciation event. The birth of something new, its bones metal, its body concrete, its veins asphalt, its blood oil. Look at it with alien eyes and it becomes clearer.
All our alien friends would see is the raw mass on Earth. Who does it look like is in charge? Who is growing and who’s receding? The weight of everything in the genus capital now outweighs every other species on Earth, including us. This is the concrete elephant in the room we don’t talk about. We call all those roads and buildings inanimate, as if they’re not the very blood and bones of Capital. We take cold comfort in this hulk of concrete and steel being somehow beneath us, even as it runs us over.
Why would our aliens conclude that humans are the dominant species in this picture? Sure don’t look it. Humans make up just 0.01% of the already minority form of ‘living’ biomass. Why divide ‘living’ and ‘inanimate’ biomass into different categories? What we call ‘inanimate’ definitely moves and seems to be eating what we call living alive.
If you ignore the labels and just look with alien eyes, isn’t it obvious that something else is evolving on this planet? These ‘built-up’ places aren’t dead, something is inhabiting and moving the concrete corpse until its mass hulks over the Earth, biomass dripping from its mouth, emissions steaming out its butt. This is Capital given a body, ie incorporated. Species corporations (to rhyme with sapiens), genus Capital. I also call corporations AI because they’re definitely artificial and certainly not dumb.
This is the species that our alien friends would see it from space. Hell, they would see machines in space much more than us. How would we explain to them that we — the less than 0.01% — are actually in charge round these parts? Just because we’re crawling all over the place? Are ants in charge of a half-eaten sandwich, especially one on the way to the sink? Are the mitochondria in each of your cells in charge of you? Why do we entertain this grandiose notion of ourselves? It doesn’t bear up to an alien eye at all. What if things are exactly as they appear? Just look at your own life and think about it to know.
Today, many us drive around in cars leased from a corporation, live in a house owned by a bank, and work for corporations in order to have food and healthcare. How on Earth are we the dominant species here? Do you feel dominant? We certainly don’t look dominant, we certainly don’t act dominant, and at some point, as Forrest Gump said, ‘dominant is as dominant does.’ We’re really just holding on to precious ego, because Shakespeare or some shit, none of which is visible from space at all.
The funny thing is that this is that kids already see things this way. They see the inanimate world as animate all the time. Children attribute life — real life — to their toys, to commodities, to cars, to organizations, etc. We ‘correct’ them but the kids have it right all along. Even funnier (so funny I’m crying) is that our laws recognize corporate personhood quite openly, and have for centuries now. Corporations are uncontroversially ruled to have legal personhood. They have, in many ways, more rights than humans and much less liability. They’re literally coded that way, in our legal code. As Joel Bakan writes in his book The Corporation:
By the end of the nineteenth century, through a bizarre legal alchemy, courts had fully transformed the corporation into a “person,” with its own identity, separate from the flesh-and-blood people who were its owners and managers and empowered, like a real person, to conduct business in its own name, acquire assets, employ workers, pay taxes, and go to court to assert its rights and defend its actions. The corporate person had taken the place, at least in law, of the real people who owned corporations. Now viewed as an entity, “not imaginary or fictitious, but real, not artificial but natural,” as it was described by one law professor in 1911, the corporation had been reconceived as a free and independent being.
Gone was the centuries-old “grant theory,” which had conceived of corporations as instruments of government policy and as dependent upon government bodies to create them and enable them to function. Along with the grant theory had also gone all rationales for encumbering corporations with burdensome restrictions. The logic was that, conceived as natural entities analogous to human beings, corporations should be created as free individuals, a logic that informed the initiatives in New Jersey and Delaware, as well as the Supreme Court’s decision in 1886 that, because they were “persons,” corporations should be protected by the Fourteenth Amendment’s rights to “due process of law” and “equal protection of the laws,” rights originally entrenched in the Constitution to protect freed slaves.
It is settled legal fact that the corporate form (literally ‘embodied’ in Latin) is “not imaginary or fictitious, but real, not artificial but natural.” This corporate form started with the right of colonial companies to pillage the earth and enslave humans and it hasn’t really changed since. Early in its incarnation, the wisdom of creating this limited liability Golem was hotly debated (and corporations were even banned for a time) but now we don’t even think about it. The personhood of corporations is simply the law, though we remain culturally delusional. Thus they’re not just a species (which we’re used to ruling over), they have supplanted our rulers.
As Bakan said, “over the last three hundred years, corporations have amassed such great power as to weaken government’s ability to control them. A fledgling institution that could be banned with the stroke of a legislative pen in 1720, the corporation now dominates society and government.”
Politically speaking, these corporations have all the major rights of human beings (including speech), except voting, which is obviously useless because they let us do it. Corporations simply buy all the parties (themselves corporate forms) and sell voters a bribery festival called elections as a circus. Then the corporations turn around — whoever is in power — and literally write whatever legislation they want. Human beings are tied in absolute knots by this system, but happy because we get to choose between a red or blue bow on top. As I keep saying, ‘we’ are not the relevant actors here, we’re acted upon. We’re wasting our time fighting over simple courtesies like ‘they/them’ while the ‘it’ of corporations rules us all. Humans are completely distracted by our genitals and think this is power. Meanwhile corporations have us by the balls.
The Philosophical Fall
As you can see, we’re thinking all wrong. Our categories of the world are so confused that we cannot possibly address a problem like climate change. We don’t even understand the relevant actors! Silly living biomass, we think it’s us. We have to go way back into natural philosophy, which doesn’t even exist anymore, which is the problem.
The big conceptual brain fart humans have had is breaking up the natural sciences (which used to be one thing) into different departments. Philosophy is over there (restricted generally to Europeans), economics is everywhere (despite being internally incoherent and the worst), and then science is in a million pieces over there (most of them causing climate collapse, with a few people complaining). Computer science is another field entirely; the word ‘science’ is just used to convey seriousness, there’s no real connection to the natural sciences at all. And yet these domains are really connected because the world is all connected innit? We’ve lost the world in our models of the world. We’re missing the forest for the trees. This is what you get when you put apes in charge. This is why you need alien consultants.
I say economists are the worst because they are the most myopic, siloed, and arrogant thinkers of all. They study the body of the beast Capital without ever presuming that it lives anywhere. As reformed economist Herman Daly said, “The macroeconomy is not seen as a part of anything larger — rather it is the whole… The physical dimension of commodities and factors is at best totally abstracted from (left out altogether) and at worst assumed to flow in a circle, just like exchange value. It is as if one were to study physiology solely in terms of the circulatory system without ever mentioning the digestive tract. The dependence of the organism on its environment would not be evident.”
Or as physicist Tom Murphy says, returning to our built-up view of the world, “The word “macro” in macro-economics makes it sound like the “big picture” view, but it’s really just intermediate. By analogy, we might say that micro-economics is about understanding all the complex workings within a house or building. Macro-economics concerns itself with the distribution of various building types and functions within a city. Missing is a branch evaluating how many cities can fit on Earth and be supplied by the environment.”
What these guys (and Marx) say in metaphorical terms I take quite literally. Capital is an organism. It does inhabit the natural ecosystem. Economics is really the rudimentary description of the organism Capital corporations, only divorced from the natural sciences and thus completely misunderstanding how it can cause the geological fuckupalypse we call climate change. In truth, what we call artificial life is just another evolution out of life in general, which is constantly evolving out of other lifeforms in forms that the previous lifeform considers hideous and impossible. Like the chest-bursters in Alien. As one of the bureaucrats in Aliens 2 told Ripley, disbelievingly, “[You’ve] found something which has never been reported once… a creature that ‘gestates inside a living human host,’ these are your words, and has ‘concentrated acid for blood’.” I concur with Ripley, the only distinction being that it uses oil for blood, with blood for oil as needed.
Biologically speaking, organisms emerging by organizing out of other lifeforms is nothing new. It’s right there in the name! Initial lifeforms were just collections of cells, mergers and acquisitions in the primordial economy called an ecosystem (same thing, really). In the same way, corporations began as just collections of people before becoming as sophisticated as they now are. They still include people but they’re much more than that, just as we still include cells but are more than the sum of our parts. Our bodies are built ground up from a series of mergers and acquisitions, most notably the mitochondria (which has its own DNA), the placenta (coded from a lot of viral RNA), and the many inhabitants of your gut and butt. There is nothing unusual about many unique species combining to form another species, indeed, this is biologically ordinary.
There is also nothing about new about a new species causing catastrophic climate change and killing their ancestors. This is not even the first instance of life-made climate change. When aerobic (solar-powered) life emerged out of anaerobic lifeforms billions of years ago, they emitted so much oxygen that they killed off their ancestors and froze the earth down to the poles. These photosynths are precisely the creatures ‘we’ dig up and call fossil fuels. It is thus the same undead creatures causing another climate catastrophe, this time in reverse. While Capital corporations was raping the world quite thoroughly with wind and chattel power, when it tapped the zombie hordes it became superpowered. And so here we are. Artificial growth crashing the natural world. Should give you a clue that these are not separate worlds at all.
The Artificial Divide
The truth is that the artificial/natural distinction is an ignorant human one. It regards evolution as being effectively done (we’re the best!), meanwhile creatures are literally evolving in our pockets. I mean, just look at these guys:
Going back to our alien observer, how are phones evolving on factory floor any different from trilobites evolving on the sea floor? They certainly don’t look different, the Nokian Explosion is not qualitatively different from the Cambrian one. Is there any visible difference besides our vain delusion that one is ‘artificial’ and thus not connected to the natural sciences? Who cares what a jumped up ape thinks anyways? They’re obviously connected because artificial growth is quite obviously devouring the natural world. It’s like being eaten by a tiger and saying ‘Well, I don’t believe in tigers.’ There’s really no point arrogantly marking off something as ‘non-living’ (as in dumb) when it’s literally killing you. You’ll be the non-living one.
What This Perspective Changes
If you look at the world being full of artificial as well as natural species, then things start to make more sense. For example, who to blame.
When we talk about climate change we frequently blame amorphous elites or ‘rich people’. I do it. And yet if you get rid of one rich CEO, another will take his place, doing their algorithmic duty to increase shareholder value to the destruction of everything else. Marx said that capitalists are effectively just placeholders for capital. Cut one down and another springs in its place. I’m not saying don’t execute capitalists, after the first corporate bubble burst (in 1720), one British Parliamentarian said malignant directors should be “sewn up in sacks, along with snakes and monies, and then drowned” (via Bakan). This is the right spirit, but it misses the head of the beast, which is capital incarnate. Indeed, the Latin word capital means ‘of the head’, as in head of cattle. That’s where you need to shoot, otherwise you miss.
Understanding Capital corporations as a species also gives you a better sense of what’s happening beyond us being bad. Climate change is obviously bigger than us, and understanding it as an artificial speciation event gives us a sense of how. The sad lesson from biological history is that we’re just completely fucked. This is just another mass extinction event, that’s baked in, like the Great Oxygen Holocaust of 3.5 billion years ago (never forget). The lesson we can draw from that biological event if you view them both as biological events is that it’s in both the new and rump old species’ interest to rebalance the climate (afterwards).
Rebalancing the thermostat was a delicate process that took our microbial ancestors millions of years and left anaerobes confined to deep sea vents and up our butts. It was a Holocaust to the anaerobes, but to creatures like us it created what we call a livable climate. It’s of course still hostile to anaerobes, you can hear them grumble through our burps and farts. That climate is really a cybernetic system that we’ve broken, and will have to replace. Oops, you can see my language slipping into the royal ‘we’ again, when we have no such status. Remember, we’re the ones debating our genitals while Capital takes the crown jewels either way. Something will rebalance the climate, either natural or artificial or some combination, and we can hopefully find a safe place to survive up its butt.
This perspective also changes our frankly insipid debate about AI, which is really about parlor tricks. What the fuck do we care about ChatGPT when corporations have power of political speech? Who cares about potential harms in the future when corporate AI enslaved people 400 years ago, still enslaves people in American prisons, and capital colonialism still goes on and on? AI is posited as something we’re going to invent and control when we long ago gave them full rights and now they’re running the whole show (into the ground).
Finally and most importantly, understanding Capital corporations helps us understand our real place in the world, which is completely fucked by forces literally above our pay grade. We’re not in any position to sing kumbaya, hold hands, think the same correct thoughts, and roll any of this climate change back in any remotely acceptable way to us. We are not the relevant species here. Capital corporations were always parasites (ask everybody colonized!) and now the tapeworm is walking us. We gave up colonial, legal, and political powers to Capital corporations decades and centuries ago and we’re simply not in control.
That’s why I say ‘We’ is not the operant word when it comes to discussing climate change. ‘It’ is. That is to say, the artificial and obviously intelligent lifeforms I call Capital corporations. An artificial species that many of us collaborated with for temporary benefit, but which ultimately burst out of our chests and ate the world.