In light of the increasingly alarming reports on climate catastrophe that have been released in the past few months, more and more transhumanists are taking up the gauntlet and putting climate-change solutions on their political agenda. Sadly, the transhumanist movement hasn’t exactly been well-received by the environmentalist movement. Environmentalists such as Charles Eisenstein have blamed “scientism” and excessive faith in the scientific materialist worldview as being primarily responsible for the overexploitation of the natural world. Other environmentalists are hostile towards the transhumanist imperative to find a cure for biological aging, arguing that curing aging will further exacerbate the resource scarcity (a common criticism which LEAF has dealt with so extensively, they have a page dedicated to it).
It probably doesn’t help that a handful of transhumanists are very vocally “anti-nature”. One of transhumanism’s primary goals is to knock down fallacious appeals to nature which are propped up against the pursuit of radical human lifespan extension or cyborgification. However, the way we present these ideas could perhaps be phrased in a more palatable manner.
Environmentalists and bioconservatives are fond of claiming that transhumanism is the apogee of human hubris. They claim that transhumanism’s goals to overcome humanity’s biological limits are inseparable from the rapacious greed that has driven developed economies to violate the natural world to a point of near-collapse. Deep Greens go so far as to call for a total renunciation of the technological fruits of civilization, and a return to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Radical environmentalists claim that a return to Luddism is the only thing that can save humanity from pillaging the natural world to a point where it becomes utterly inhabitable. But I would argue that the either-or split between human progress through technological advancement and compassion towards non-human life is a false dichotomy.
Drawing on David Pearce’s hedonistic imperative, I will argue that transhumanism and environmentalism aren’t necessarily at loggerheads with each other. You could even say that transhumanism entails a benevolent stewardship of nature, and that care for all non-human life is a logical extension of human exceptionalism. If the core imperative of our movement is to minimize suffering caused by biological limitations, that should apply to minimizing non-human suffering as well.
Benevolent stewardship: the Aristotelian mean between Deep Green Ludditism and Radical Transhumanist Anti-Naturism
I don’t think I’ve ever met somebody whose ideas have so radically changed my views on existential teleology and the natural world as quickly as David’s have. What I love about David’s hedonistic imperative and his involvement in the Reducing Wild Animal Suffering (RWAS) movement is how radically his ideology reframes the idea of human exceptionalism.
“Human exceptionalism” is generally seen as a bad thing, and with good reason. For the better part of human civilisation’s history, humans have been exceptionally bad – exceptionally bad to ethnic minorities who didn’t have guns or cannons, exceptionally bad to women by depriving them of equal status to men and bodily autonomy, and exceptionally bad to all the animals humans have needlessly slaughtered or whose habitats they obliterated. Human beings are stand out as being exceptionally intelligent amongst the animal kingdom, and they also stand out for using that intelligence in extremely innovative ways to amass vast amounts of resources for their “in” groups, by brutally exploiting “out” groups in the most unimaginably vile ways.
But the hedonistic imperative puts a new spin on “human exceptionalism”. The hedonistic imperative is the great Uncle Ben lesson for humanity. With our exceptional intelligence comes great responsibility – responsibility not just to currently marginalized ethnic groups, genders, and social classes within humanity, but to non-human species, too. If we have the intelligence to turn humanity into a planet-ravaging force, then we have the intelligence to find a way to repair the damage humans have done.
The hedonistic imperative movement has also been credited with helping to convert a growing number of transhumanists to veganism, and to supporting planet-saving initiatives.
Aristotle is best known for describing virtue as the golden mean between two vices. I wouldn’t go so far as to call Deep Green environmentalism or radically anti-naturist transhumanism “vices”, but I would say that the hedonistic imperative manages to gel the most effective aspects of both schools of thought while avoiding the practical blind spots of both.
Deep Green environmentalists like Charles Eisenstein tend to promulgate the idea of nature’s sacredness as entailing an acceptance of natural malaises. These include death due to biological aging, but a logical extension of this is that it is immoral for human beings to intervene in nature and prevent animals from harming each other, since it is part of the “natural order”. Radically anti-naturist transhumanists tend to view anything natural as being automatically inferior to whatever man-made alternatives can be technologically manufactured. While we shouldn’t accept invocations of naturalism prima facie, this view isn’t quite tenable for primarily practical reasons. It would probably be extremely unwise to replace all the organic trees in the world with man-made synthetic ones, because the Earth’s biosphere is an exceedingly complex system that even our best biologists and geologists still do not fully understand. Likewise, we cannot solely on carbon-capture technology or geoengineering to be the ultimate solutions to the ongoing climate crisis. Much more still needs to be invested in reforestation and the restoration of currently endangered animal and plant species which have been afflicted by habitat loss or resource depletion.
Homo Deus: Already Here
For all the utter destruction that humanity has wrought over the past 10,000 years, we can’t overlook the great capabilities we hold as stewards of nature. Say what you will about humanity, but we’re literally the only species on Earth that has evolved to a point where we can use science to resurrect the dodo bird, the woolly mammoth, and the pterodactyl. And we can do that with all the other species we’ve driven to extinction. Perhaps those will be the reparations we pay to the animal kingdom for the previous damage done.
Humanity is also the only species in existence that actually has the power to contradict the forces of natural selection and end natural suffering in its tracks. We just choose not to because we can’t be bothered to. I had never in my life thought about how powerful the implications of this were until I listened to David speak about it. We are the only species with the requisite technological power to end hunger, disease, and infant mortality amongst animals, if we so choose.
Basically put: we’re already gods and goddesses.
We are literally gods in the eyes of animals.
But many humans have chosen to emulate the very worst behaviours of the Old Testament Biblical God rather than being the kind of God all human civilizations would long hope would care for them kindly.
One of Ben Goertzel’s major life goals is to create the most benevolent possible AI nanny who will be programmed to watch over humanity, make us immortal and create a post-scarcity condition where all of our physical needs can be met through the application of nanotechnology. Ben acknowledges that deliberately programming an AI to be as benevolent and compassionate is possible, because at present, everyone and their mother is preparing for a possible Terminator scenario where AI goes rogue and decides that it is under no obligation to be kind to its human creators.
If you would like to know exactly how badly an indifferent or uncompassionate posthuman AI could treat us, you need only look at how badly humans treat chickens and cows. You would only have to look up YouTube videos of desperate orangutans feebly trying to push aside construction cranes that are in the midst of pulverising the trees in which they reside.
And it wasn’t too long ago that humans treated different races of human beings in a similar fashion (although they weren’t slaughtered for consumption).
A posthuman ultra-intelligent AI inflicting the same treatment on humans in developed industrial economies might just be karma coming to pay what’s long been due.
“The benevolent AI god who will resurrect the dead and keep us prosperous forever” is the one wild fantasy which transhumanist forums are constantly salivating over. But why should we expect the AI god to be so propitious to us when humans are not even showing a fraction of that expected mercy to the elephants, cows, and salmon alive today?
Gandhi said, “be the change you want to see in the world.” Pearce and the RWAS movement crank this imperative up a notch:
“Be the ultra-intelligent, highly-evolved benevolent steward whom you’d like to see overseeing the well-being and survival of your species.”
The New Narrative of Human Exceptionalism
At their core, the primary message of the Deep Green environmentalism and the transhumanist hedonistic imperative aren’t so different. Both movements say that the narrative of Man as the Mighty Colonizer must now come to an end. Charles Eisenstein and Jason Godesky propose we get there by returning to having Animism as the overarching religious paradigm of global society, and by returning to a more hunter-gatherer-like lifestyle.
Julian Savulescu argues that we nip the problem in its biological bud by using biotechnological intervention to delete the human genes that predispose us to excessive aggression towards “out” groups, excessive resource hoarding, and rape. For reasons I’ve explained in detail elsewhere, I tend to side more with Savulescu. But put aside the means, and you’ll realise that both the Deep Greens and more pacifist-humanitarian transhumanists are both proponents of the same end.
One reason why I tend more towards siding with Savulescu and Pearce is because I think that forsaking technological advancement would be a mistake. If transhumanism is about transcending our biologically-saddled limitations through the application of technology, it follows that the shortcomings of primate-based moral psychology shouldn’t be an exception. As leading primatologist Richard Wrangham points out in his often-cited Demonic Males, our primate ancestors evolved to wage war on hominids from other “out” groups and to be predisposed towards hyper-aggression and selfishness, as a means of surviving on the resource-scarce savannah. And our neurobiological hardwiring hasn’t changed significantly since then. One of Savulescu’s favorite argument points is claiming that had genetic moral editing been available earlier, we’d probably have averted the climate catastrophe altogether. Savulescu sees the climate catastrophe as being a glaring symptom of still-dominant monkey brains’ failures to consider the long-term consequences of short-term consumer capitalist satisfaction.
Furthermore, renouncing the fruits of technology and modern medicine would make us far less effective stewards of the animal world. If we go back to a hunter-gatherer existence, we’ll be renouncing the technology needed to resurrect both long and recently extinct species. Another major goal of the RWAS movement is to use CRISPR gene-editing to help reduce the propensity towards suffering in wild animals, and to engage in fertility regulation. Pearce claims that we might even be able to make natural carnivorism and mating-season-induced violence obsolete using gene-editing in various aggression-prone species. While we’re at it, we could edit the physiological basis for craving meat out of human beings, since our primate ancestors evolved to be omnivorous. Or we could at the very least try to create a future where all of our meat is lab-grown or made from plant-based substitutes.
It’s also worth noting that human beings are the only species on the planet to find out about the ultimate fate of life on Earth. We’ve very, very recently found out that the duration of the planet’s habitability has an expiry date, and that the Sun will eventually turn into a red dwarf and fry the Earth into an inhospitable wasteland. Given that human beings are the only species which has the necessary intelligence to engage in space travel and colonization, the survival of every single non-human species on the planet falls into our hands. The sole hope for the perpetuation of non-human species lies in future humans setting up space colonies in other habitable planets outside our solar system, and taking all of Earth’s animal species with us. Again, this isn’t something we can achieve if we renounce technological progress.
Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus has become a staple read for many in the transhumanist movement. But in the eyes of the world’s animals, we have already become all-powerful gods, who can dole out exploitative cruelty or interventional mercy on a whim. The criticisms of the Deep Green environmentalist movement are increasingly forcing techno-utopians to confront this question; exactly what kind of gods and goddesses will we continue to be to the non-humans of the Earth? If we are going to reconceptualize human exceptionalism from being associated with exceptional human greed and exploitation, to being based on exceptional human wisdom and interventionary benevolence, we need to heed the words of both Savulescu and Eisenstein, and pursue a different human narrative. We’re generally kinder towards women, ethnic minorities, sexual minorities, and the working class than we were three hundred years ago, so there is hope that we’re steadily changing course towards a more altruistic track. If every great moral school of thought has an overarching axiom, the one that defines the hedonistic imperative should be this: “Treat less sentient animals the way you would like the posthuman AI god to treat you and your family.”
Hilda Koehler is a fourth-year political science major at the National University of Singapore. She is a proud supporter of the transhumanist movement and aims to do her best to promote transhumanism and progress towards the Singularity.