“When man interferes with the Tao,
the sky becomes filthy,
the earth becomes depleted,
the equilibrium crumbles,
creatures become extinct.”
~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.
When The Matrix came out in 1999, no one considered it to be an environmental allegory. Instead, we cast it as Frankenstein for the digital age: the hubris of humanity playing god, our creations turning on us and threatening the survival of our species. Climate change had not yet slid into the Overton window, but now that it has, watching The Matrix in light of it makes sense. What folks in the “existential risk” space refer to as the “control problem” of artificial intelligence is likely to become more and more entangled with the climate problem.
This week, one of the leading science journalists of our time, Elizabeth Kolbert—author of The Sixth Extinction—came out with a new book, Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future, reporting on the state of play around the climate problem. Among the many controversial cutting-edge technologies she profiles is geo-engineering, the main form of which involves injecting sulfate particles into the atmosphere to deflect solar radiation in order to cool the planet. As one of her sources bluntly remarks, we are at the point where we are seriously talking about “dimming the fucking sun.”
When Morpheus explains to Neo how the machines took over—“some time in the early 21st century”—he says that as a last ditch effort to win the war, humanity darkened the sky in order to cut off the machine’s power source—the sun. Yet this turned out to seal humanity’s fate, since the machines realized they could use human bodies as batteries by growing them in fields, sucking their life force energy away as they sleepwalked through a virtual reality simulation.
Few paid attention, however, to the deeper meaning of The Matrix sequels—partly because of wooden acting and stilted scripts, partly because they contained a spiritual teaching far too high for popular culture. In the second and third films, we learn that the simple morality play of the first film—“humanity good, machines bad”—is yet another illusion. The machines themselves turn out to be incarnations of spirit. In Hegelian terms, the machines are humanity’s alienated essence, and the war is the “cunning of reason” conspiring to reconcile them to each other. Neo is the Christ-like mediator between the two.
A form of this Manichean morality tale characterizes much of the environmental movement—“ humanity/technology/capitalism bad, nature good”—and colors Western appropriations of Daoism. The rhetoric of balance, harmony, and equilibrium conjures the idea that humanity is, as Agent Smith puts it, a “cancer on this planet.”
The problem with this line of thinking is that nature created a species that interferes with nature. To regard humanity as the problem is, paradoxically, to interfere with the Dao. As Stewart Brand famously put it, “We are as gods. We may as well get good at it.” Our destiny is not what we have tacitly been trying to do for millennia: leave this planet. It is to make it our home for the first time; to restore the balance we began to disrupt with the advent of agriculture; to run the industrial revolution in reverse; and, as energy scientist Amory Lovins puts it, to “reinvent fire,” switching from scarce “fuels from hell” to unlimited “fuels from heaven.” Like the machines, carbon dioxide is our alienated essence, the shadow of our civilization. We must confront it, take responsibility for it, bury it, and refrain from projecting it.
If we interfere with the Dao—if we not grow our consciousness to develop technologies to adapt to the world we have wrought—the sky will become filthy, the earth will be depleted, and creatures will go extinct. Few figures seem more at odds with both Daoism and environmentalism than Francis Bacon. Yet Bacon said that to be commanded, nature must be obeyed. It is earth (geothermal), fire (solar and nuclear), wind, and water power—and the fifth element, the spark of intelligence within us—that will lead us to energy heaven.
Only then will we have true “energy independence.” Only when our civilization is fueled by heaven will we give up trying to get there. Only then will we finally be earthlings.
New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”