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In favor of a more generous understanding of the world

In the future, we may remember 2023 as the year in which everything went wrong: the climate crisis became irreversible and artificial intelligence got out of control. But we could also remember 2024 as the year in which we decided to fight for something different

A protest against fossil fuels at the COP28, in Dubai, on December 12, 2023.
A protest against fossil fuels at the COP28, in Dubai, on December 12, 2023.THOMAS MUKOYA (REUTERS)
Marta Peirano

One day, we may remember 2023 as the year when everything went wrong. Between November of 2022 and October of 2023, Earth experienced the hottest period ever recorded. Meteorologists found Category 5 storms in every ocean basin around the world. The Amazon began to produce more emissions than it captures. Sea ice plummeted to a record low. The melting of land glaciers has caused sea levels to rise even further.

On top of all of this, emissions from fossil fuels reached an all-time high; we ate more meat, bought more clothes and traveled on more airplanes than ever before. And, while we had already ruled out the plan to keep the temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius, the president of the COP28 – held in Dubai – went one step further: he said that there is no scientific evidence that indicates that it’s necessary to eliminate fossil fuels to limit global warming.

In many large economies, the number of deaths now exceeds the number of births. And this hasn’t occurred because of war or COVID-19: it has happened because of people deciding to have fewer children, diet and pollution. The main cause of death in the world is cardiovascular disease, caused by excessive hydrogenated fats, sugar and red and processed meat, along with the general absence of fiber, seeds, fresh fruits and vegetables from many people’s diets. And still, despite declining birth rates, we’re more afraid of immigration… we’re so concerned that we would rather renounce universal human rights pacts than bologna. The new European Pact on Migration and Asylum changes the quota system for an à la carte reception, where countries can avoid hosting migrants by paying €20,000 ($24,000) per head. The new European law on artificial intelligence (AI) prohibits automatic and remote biometric recognition systems – racist, classist and error-prone technologies – but immigration and police contexts are exempt from such prohibitions.

We’re also concerned about AI. Europe agreed to its first AI law in November of 2023, shortly after Joe Biden issued an executive order to subject its development to national security criteria. The Chinese Communist Party prohibited training models with content that promotes “terrorism, violence, subversion of the socialist system, damage to the country’s reputation” and actions that “undermine national cohesion and social stability.” The United Kingdom, meanwhile, brought together 20 countries for the first international AI Safety Summit. Everyone wants to control uses and prevent dangers that only exist in the collective fantasy, propagated by big business executives and science fiction. But no one wants to contain the real danger: its rapid, spectacular, desperate and flammable expansion.

AI is insatiable. Its enormous storage and processing infrastructure grows like an interplanetary bacteria, sticking its fat tentacles into every available source of water, energy, minerals and administrative and cognitive processes. It eats everything: mines and salt mines, power plants, nuclear facilities, solar farms, Indigenous peoples, debt-ridden students, stressed journalists, populations impoverished by war, drought, capitalism and globalization. North America increased its construction of data centers by 25%, not counting the hyperscalers: Google, Amazon, Meta and Microsoft. The CEO of Nvidia, the high-performance chip dealer, estimates that $1 billion will be spent expanding infrastructure capable of seriously altering the price and supply of water and electricity. This will have predictable consequences on the price of electricity, heating and air conditioning, transportation, food and the rest of the supply chain.

AI is growing faster than sustainable energy sources. Its related industries consume more water than the global population. But these paradoxes are neither the symptoms of a collective psychotic break, nor the symptoms of the cyclical and inexorable decline of Western civilization. Nor are they the defects of capitalism. They are, rather, indispensable parts of a plan.

“Capitalism is an insecurity machine, though we rarely think of it as such,” Astra Taylor wrote in May of 2020 in Logic(s) Magazine. “Alongside profits, commodities, and inequality, insecurity is a fundamental output of the system. Neither an incidental byproduct nor a secondary consequence of the concentration of wealth, it is one of capitalism’s essential and enabling creations.”

Social welfare promotes empathy, solidarity between neighbors and collaboration. It favors intellectual and spiritual ambition over economic ambition, while encouraging a generous interpretation of the world. These are values that are in conflict with the fundamental principles of the capitalist system, such as competition, exclusion and individuality.

The insecurity machine begins 2024 having already scored many goals: it has achieved the environmental crisis and the media crisis, while sowing disenchantment with politics. The sinister campaigns of digital platforms and the alternative facts churned out by AI have taken a toll. This certainly isn’t a good year for more than two billion people from some 70 countries to go out and vote. Still, there’s a chance that we could remember 2024 as the year when we decided to seek a more generous understanding of the world and fight for it.

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